Crossroad Blues, by Robert Johnson

The history of rock and roll music is written through a cloudy lens of myth and legend. Paul McCartney and John Lennon meet at a carnival, and talk about the rock, folk and skiffle music they both love so much. Clarence Clemons walks through the door of an Asbury Park bar late on a blustery cold night, and joins Bruce Springsteen in an impromptu jam session. Eric Clapton disappears for a year, and returns to the London pub scene playing guitar like no one had ever seen before.

Perhaps the greatest rock and roll legend ever comes from a time even before rock and roll existed. Robert Johnson grew up in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in 1911, and the story is told that he found himself at a darkened crossroads as a young man, and traded his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar. The devil, legend tells us, gave him seven years to play and to perform, after which the soul of Robert Johnson would belong to the devil. Seven years later, Robert Johnson was dead at the age of 27, poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he was flirting with at a party.

And in those seven years Robert Johnson recorded 29 songs that would serve as the blueprint of rock and roll. Sitting alone in a hotel room, sitting in a make-shift studio playing his banged up acoustic guitar and singing into a single microphone, Robert Johnson left a legacy of scratchy recordings of the some of the greatest songs of our time. Songs that he wrote. Songs that will be forever in his name.

“Crossroad Blues,” perhaps the greatest of the songs Robert Johnson recorded during his lifetime, tells the story of the legend.

“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”

Ooh, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooh-ee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by

Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee-eee, risin’ sun goin’ down
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down

You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkin’ downAnd

I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west
I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked East and West
Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress

Johnson sings the song like the very breath of life is being squeezed from his lungs. He sings of loneliness and desperation with familiarity and authenticity. The guitar playing is remarkable. Though only a single guitar is heard, there are different rhythms and melodies, and Johnson never misses a note, his hands flying up and down the neck of the guitar. This music

For many years, the Robert Johnson was someone who blues aficianodos discussed amongst themselves, but whose recordings were not readily available. Famous CBS producer John Hammond released a collection of Robert Johnson tracks in the early 1960’s, and the music was discovered and devoured by everyone from Keith Richards to Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton. Of Johnson’s guitar playing, Richards said “I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.”

Listen to “Crossroad Blues.” Listen to “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Terraplane Blues” and “Love in Vain.” Each song is tightly wound with the rich tradition of rock and roll it would eventually inspire.

A man and a guitar. A sacrifice of everything that is sacred and holy for the opportunity to play, to create, to entertain. An art form created, while huddled in the corner of the room. This is rock and roll. This is blues. This is one perfect song.

Crossroad Blues
Written by Robert Johnson
Performed by Robert Johnson
Recorded November 27, 1936

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